Bacchae-done-female, as you’ve never seen it before, by MUST at La Mama

Women’s collective agency is on show in a new, Robert Reid directed The Bacchae performed inside the famous former Carlton Courthouse, remade as the La Mama Courthouse Theatre. A play tradition rooted in deeply patriarchal Athenian society, where women are the possessions of men, have no suffrage, and live invisible from the street or the demos, it addresses many questions I’ve long held: what did the women of classical Greek get up to away from the eyes of men and official society? (something one wonders watching footage from today’s Middle East).

If women have no citizenship or political value, what power do they exercise? This plays goes a way to revealing it.

Co-presented with the Monash Student Association’s Monash University Student Theatre[MUST], this is a work where women usually feature in the sidelines(from Euripides’ version), off stage while two male protagonists stand centrestage, commenting on their awfulness. Euripides always wrote good female characters, they are the best part of the action in his oeuvre, and Reid here takes on this mantle, configuring the central view with the women, and women-identifying people, guiding the lens.They not only comment on the male action- they organise, agitate, and make plans. 

A Bacchic play cycle by Aeschylus, written for the City of Dionysia annual theatrical competition, is used as a base reference – his play about rebellion, loss, and violence, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Dionysus’ worshippers were depicted as mainly female, who danced ecstatically at his rites in contrast to the cool analytics of the masculine paragon and God, Apollo, his opposite. The God of wine, drama, hysteria, and dance, women were mocked as his followers (he Greek word hysteros means ‘womb’). This work blends the original/s with The Performance Garage’s Dionysus in ‘69, set at various times in history, such as America or an 1870s mental asylum in France. Their own play text was crafted over the three years of development, resulting in this cycle of three plays and a prologue (satyr Play).

Developed over three years in collaboration with a group of female actors, the show presents with 40 women on stage of varying ages, nationalities, presences, and presentations. It’s charming to see so diverse a group of real women on stage who aren’t theatricalised- they are pedestrian, everyday people, the women you might see at a bath house, local swimming pool, or food court at Chadstone Shopping Centre, or at a rock concert. They are real, they live in the world, they mix and mingle with each other, they have opinions on the world around them, some earn, and they can vote. They hold polity- just as did the women of Athens. 

With expert dramaturgical oversight from Monash University classical theatre specialist Jane Montgomery Griffiths, and acting depth  such as Deakin University’s Performing Arts head, Yoni Prior, from stage schools, and the screen, the play is an interesting academic exercise which considers women’s responses and lived presence in this story set inside a patriarchal paradigm. The frame doesn’t feel that different, over two thousand years later but the creative agency of the women holds no surprises. As the Director salutes: whether Pussy Riot, or any woman who has stood up to male power, “[you] are all The Bacchae“.

Wemba Wemba and Noongar actor Carissa Lee and Ellen Grimshaw hold attention as expert stage actors with Melanie Beddie a moving mature presence as Yisiphone in the 1870s French asylum, who speaks like a seer. Georgie Bright and Bianca Montagner showed good voice work. It’s great to see student theatre creating space for first timers to debut on stage and there could be no better work than classical theatre at La Mama- welcome into the mysteries!

A more unique version of this classic you could not find. See it to support its bold undertaking and experience the thrill of women in action. 

– Sarah Wallace

is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, Melbourne.  A performing arts and English literature graduate of VCA, UOM and Deakin, she has a flair for bold, non-traditional performance platforms. An active contributor to The Melbourne Shakespeare Society, on the street, or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

The Bacchae shows across two sittings 10-21 July, Part 1: 5pm Saturday/Sunday, Part II: 6.30pm Wedesday, 7.30pm Thursday- Friday, 8.30pm Saturday- Sunday (2 hours each with 10 mins interval) shows at La Mama Courthouse Theatre. Buy tickets here.

The venue is accessible. 

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Disclosure: The Plus Ones were guests of La Mama Theatre. 

Images: Julia Kaddatz, Aleks Corke.